Monday, October 30, 2000
Entries will be scarce at the moment I'm afraid. I have my law exams on Wednesday and Thursday, which sorta take precedence. However I do have time to tell you that last night I went to Truestep, the new Sunday night UK Garage event in Melbourne, and was duly impressed. That's a bit of understatement actually - it was fantastic. Truly, this music is so good it's difficult to get excited about anything else. Favourite moment: the bass-heavy Wideboys mix of All Saints' "Black Coffee", which sounded like some bizarre combination of Omni Trio's "Renegade Snares", LFO's "We Are Back" and, er, All Saints' "Black Coffee". I'll have even more thoughts on the whole UK Garage thing later on.

Thursday, October 26, 2000
Destiny's Child - Independent Women

The verdict on this seems to be that it's pretty nice but not up to the standard of the singles from the Destiny album The Writing's On The Wall. I've only listened to it a couple of times, but I reckon it deserves more than just the status of "also-ran". This is a pretty freaky single, in my opinion. I'm not sure who produced it; it sounds somewhere between Timbaland's new minimalist style (the beats are spare but still quite jarring) and Rodney Jerkins' string-swept fare. It's almost irrelevant though, because the quality is all in the performance anyway.

Indeed, from the artificiality of Beyonce's first line, "Question: tell me what you think about me/I buy my own diamonds and my own rings/I own call your celly when I'm feeling lonely/so when it's all over get up and leave", you know that this is a performance. The great thing about all these male-bashing divas in R&B is that, as opposed the direct emotional dialogue of love songs, these songs demand a certain amount of sass in their delivery, and wit in their put-downs. If the singer is not simply trying to convince the listener that they're totally in love with them, there's a lot more room for playfulness and surprise. R&B is currently like the pop-music equivalent of Rent, turning what is ostensibly real life experience into larger-than-life drama, in the process denaturalising and camping up reality.

The difference between "Independent Women" and Rent though is that Beyonce and her cohorts are too badass to be corny, and too cold to be actually emotional. Their performances aren't "powerful" in that they tug on the listener's heartstrings, but rather in that they impress with their steely confidence (that's partly why the ballads on The Writing's On The Wall are all so excrutiating; the girls deliberately sound bereft and emotional, and it doesn't suit the peronality they built up on their singles).

It's because of that perception of steeliness that the girls can get away with the almost abrasive, raucous cry "To all the women making money, throw your hands up me!" in the chorus (inspired by Kelis' "Caught Out There" maybe?). No longer content to merely be at the mercy of the listener's affections anymore, Destiny's Child's message could almost be "we don't give a stuff about you because you're lower than us anyway." With no-one to impress, there's no need to aspire to a plastic perfection.

Even better is the call-and-response between Beyonce listing her possessions and the other girls sighing "I've got it." Like The Ronnetes or The Shangri Las back in the sixties, the sort of pop Destiny's Child are making is totally over the top and yet anything but cringeworthy. There's even a Pink-style choral interlude! What more could you want?

Inspired by my recent listening habits, I've been thinking of making a tapemix style review thingy with the best house tunes ever on it. I'm also doing one for UK Garage, but I've got enough ideas there. What I want is suggestions of great house tunes I may be forgetting about. Even better, if you can include a short review of the track in question I'll print it, and maybe even credit you for it. How exciting, huh? So get cracking.

Oh yeah, ultimately my intention is actually to make this thing, so if you've got an interest in receiving a copy (or a virtual copy using you-know-what) once I'm done, let me know.

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Warning: a finnicky and overly detailed discussion of the UK Garage scene follows. If the music or scene politics in general don't interest you, skip over this.

So I was half-heartedly skimming through the latest issue of Select at Borders yesterday and came across an interesting but worrying article about "breakbeat garage" - the new rough'n'raw subgenre of UK garage that is suddenly being talked up everywhere. Not surprisingly Select represent breakbeat garage as the garage that dyed-in-the-wool indie rock fans can boogie to, much like big beat before it, as opposed to the alleged girly pop that makes up the rest of the genre.

The truth though is that this "new thing" is a bit of a sham, at least in the sense that it is somehow fresh, or that the producers within the scene have latched onto a new style. Darker tracks like E.S. Dubs' "Standard Hoodlum Issue", Richie Boy and DJ Klasse's "Madness In The Streets" Antonio's "Hyperfunk" and KMA's "Cape Fear", plus countless dark productions from Dem 2, Groove Chronicles, Steve Gurley and M-Dubs have shared the floor with R&B style numbers since the 2-step scene started, but if they were to come out today they would be lauded as prime examples of this "fresh" sound. M-Dub for one were describing their style as "breakbeat funk" as far back as the '98 remix of their classic "Over Here".

Similarly, many of the original 4/4 speed garage hits from '96-'97, like Double 99's "Rip Groove" or R.I.P's "Industry Standard Volume 1" are heavy bass stormers that, if not for their house beat, would fit right into this emergent scene. The idea that garage is only now aquiring a dark underbelly is preposterous; a nice fiction for new producers who want to fabricate major innovation where only a small or at best moderate amount exists.

Select justifies the scene's existence by pointing to the growing practice of building tracks from splinters of breakbeats rather than the typical drum machine. The reporter whispers darkly about an emergency convention of the UK Garage scene's big movers and shakers called by either Norris 'Da Boss' Windross of N&G or Matt 'Jam' Lamont of Tuff Jam (I can't remember which, but I think the former) to try and put a lid on the breakbeat-ification of the scene, and specfically to counter the success of DJ Dee Kline's "I Don't Smoke".

It's a bizarre reflection of the tale of the "Council" of jungle's leading lights who have apparently controlled jungle's development since '92 or so, and dramatically took action to squash the career of ragga star General Levy and his jungle producer M-Beat after the success of their novelty single "Incredible" and Levy's claim in The Face that he was "runnin' jungle." I also reckon it sounds pretty unlikely. For one the latest mixes of N&G's "Liferide" are propelled by, of all things, amen breaks, and Tuff Jam are on the whole 4/4 purists who have always been disgruntled by 2-step's success anyway.

Furthermore, Dee Kline is painting himself as a martyr for the new scene, which belies the fact that "I Don't Smoke", like "Incredible", is a fun but ultimately throwaway novelty tune that doesn't even use breakbeats anyway. The subsequent success of the awful "Bound 4 Da Reload" by Oxide & Neutrino suggests that the prevailing distaste for "I Don't Smoke" is at least partly well-founded. Where most pop-based garage marries pop smarts with experimental sophistication expertly, the big novelty tunes tend to be ugly, abrasive and irritatingly repetitive, on par with lowest common denominator Gatecrasher trance. DJ Spoony of The Dreem Teem denied any conspiracy in The Face, saying that while he doesn't like "I Don't Smoke", he'd be more than happy to play future Dee Kline tracks if they're any good.

The Select article avoids a number of issues that would tarnish its hypothesis that breakbeat garage is rock boys' dance music, like the fact that breakbeats are springing up all over the garage spectrum, and all sorts of established producers are incorporating the general sound into their work (for a great example check out the fabulous Shanks & Bigfoot remix of jungle act Kitachi's "Boost Dem"). Not to mention that the main exponents of the style like the Stanton Warriors and The Wideboys are getting a lot of support and props from the scene's major players. Meanwhile Zed Bias's classic "Neighbourhood" was released on Locked On Records, perhaps the highest profile garage label around.

Significantly, all three acts use a lot of female vocals or remix vocal tracks all the time. Indeed, my favourite breakbeat garage tracks are the ones which unify the two extremes - the shrieking diva on "Neighbourhood", or the Stanton Warriors' excellent breakbeat mix of Jocelyn Brown's house classic "Somebody Else's Guy". At any rate Select's proposition that breakbeat equals non-girlpop is way off base.

What distinguishes the current breakbeat garage sound is not a musical paradigm shift so much as a socio-cultural struggle within the scene. Much is made of DJ Donna Dee's army-pants uniform because it directly contravenes the dress codes of clubs like Twice As Nice or Pure Silk. In a reversal of the classic "back to the clubs" push within most rave-derived scenes, the artificial separation of breakbeat garage is largely about the white working class fans of garage wanting squat clubs that reflect their values and bank balances. The harder, dirtier music is a reflection of the fashion, not the other way round.

More insidious is the fact that nearly all of the producers interviewed in the article were originally from other scenes, and have arrived in garage only recently. Zed Bias used to be part of The Almighty Beatfreakz, a nu-skool breakz duo, and similarly Dee Kline was releasing tracks on Botchit & Scarper, a prominent breakz label. DJ Zinc's "138 Trek", a contemporary landmark for the breakbeat scene, sounds just like slowed down jungle, which is not surprising since Zinc is actually a member of the drum & bass collective Ganja Kru, responsible for the '95 hardstep classic "Supa Sharp Shooter".

Now normally this wouldn't make a difference - quality music is quality music and crap is crap, and in the face of that a pedigree or lack of it counts for little. But it seems to me that a lot of the "underground" artists that complain about garage's pop success were originally producers working in other, less successful breakbeat styles. Having noticed that they weren't shifting units and garage was, they've cannily switched scenes, only to try and turn garage into what they were making in the first place. So now who's being opportunist?

As I've said before, I love a lot of breakbeat garage. It's just that from here the future for the garage scene seems all to depressingly clear and familiar. Breakbeat garage will probably be for garage what techstep was for jungle - initially invigorating, but rapidly degenerating into a creative cul-de-sac of purist minimalism (goodbye twinkling xylophones and vocal cut-ups, hello nothing but breakbeats and basslines) and unnecessary and unconvincing poses, and in the process quite possibly taking the whole scene with it.

Here's an interesting article on Green Velvet by, surprise surprise, Simon Reynolds. Truth be told, I'm starting to get annoyed with the fact that I seem to share his music tastes exactly. Perhaps it's time to crack out the Britpop...

Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Also at SonicNet is this interesting little feature on 10 essential Drum & Bass albums. The idea is somewhat flawed: while there's nothing inherently wrong with a jungle album, by focusing on the album format at the exclusion of singles, remixes, white labels etc, there's a guarantee that the recommendations won't cover the fullest and best extent of the broader style - especially since the albums listed all seem to have been chosen with availability/profile in mind.

My pick for best jungle album ever would have to go to Grooverider's Hardstep Collection II mix cd from '95, which not only has peerless mixing from an on-form Grooverider, but features some of the best jungle tracks ever: FBD Project's "She's So", Dillinja's "Angels Fell", J Majick's "Your Sound", Roni Size and Die's "It's A Jazz Thing", Splash's "Babylon", DJ S.S.'s "Lighter" etc. etc. and etc. Only trouble is that you'd be hard-pressed to ever find a copy of the thing these days. Not to mention that the predominance of '94-era hardstep jungle would confuse the post-Goldie drum and bass dilletante.

That said, the recommendations are generally pretty spot on. 4 Hero's Parallel Universe, along with their subsequent album under the moniker of Jacob's Optical Stairway, represent the pinnacle in out-there drum programming and jungle fusion. Torque is far and away the best techstep compilation around, featuring virtually all the early masterpieces from the No-U-Turn stable. I can't think of a better general introduction compilation than Metalheadz' Platinum Breakz with its bevy of classic mid-nineties tunes spanning the spectrum of light to dark. Reprazent's New Forms is the most successful jazzy-jungle attempt, and a great collection in general, whatever its detractors might think. And Goldie's Timeless, despite some less-than-thrilling filler, does have a number of undeniably brilliant moments - the title track, "Saint Angel", "Angel", "Kemistry", "Jah You Know Big", "Still Life" - that more than justify the price of purchase. Still, perhaps Omni Trio's The Deepest Cut would be a more consistent example of pop-jungle.

The other selections I'm somewhat iffy about. I can understand the inclusion of LTJ Bukem's Logical Progressions compilation as the requisite ambient/"deep" jungle collection, but personally I reckon the necessary tracks are better found on other, superior Good Looking Records and third-party compilations. Jonny L's Sawtooth is a good album, but his follow-up Magnetic blows it out of the water. Ed Rush and Optical's Wormholes is rendered redundant by the inclusion of both Torque and Jonny L, and a more interesting example of artist-based techstep album would be Dom & Roland's Industry. Peshay's album I haven't heard in full, but the supporting evidence seems flimsy - one New Forms is quite enough - so perhaps in its place we could subsitute A Guy Called Gerald's Black Secret Technology or some choice hardstep/jump up. I guess it's just too bad I'm not the one they come to when commissioning these sorts of articles ;-)

Monday, October 23, 2000
Simon Reynolds gets positive over Timo Maas's ubiquitous remix of Azzido Da Bass's "Doom's Night". I've had "Doom's Night" for a while on compilation and it really is one of the most curious dance records in a while - much more interesting in my opinion than Mr. Oizo's "Flat Beat", the last bassy techno anthem to top the charts. Both are novelty records ("Doom's Night" has a long beatless bleepy sequence like a flying saucer landing on a house) but what has made "Doom's Night" such a success is the startling originality of its groove.

I'm not sure which is better: the bassline, somewhere between sludgy, farting techno and the acid groove of harder garage and drum and bass; or the curious beats, that are neither house-style four/four nor breakbeat-derived, but rather find a bizarre middle ground between the two, unsyncopated and yet not quite stable. I suppose in essence it's like one of those snare counter-rhthyms you find on house or techno tracks, only this time played with a kickdrum.

I was surprised that Reynolds didn't mention the Belgian techno influence to this track (both in its conflation of hardness with accessibility and its pan-genre sound) but the other less obvious comparison that immediately sprung to my mind is Max Martin - Britney-pop producer extraordinaire. Both "Doom's Night" and "Baby One More Time" or "Crazy" have that irresistible crunching bass and trudging kickdrum groove that render them hard yet poppy. I once said somewhere that if Max Martin started producing contemporary drum and bass he'd not only beat Bad Company hands down in both basslines and pop smarts, but also perhaps singlehandedly revive the scene.

I got the wrong guy and the wrong genre, but listening to "Doom's Night" I reckon I was half-right. "Doom's Night" isn't really an innovative record, and it's unlikely to be the start of a new scene. What it does do merely through its surprising success is open a space for something other than grim intensity and purism within the post-techno scene. Like UK Garage, "Doom's Night" demonstrates that chart action is not only achieved by paring down a style to its bare populist essentials (eg. Gatecrasher trance) but perhaps also by juxtaposing different sounds and ideas so that they rub up against eachother brilliantly.

My current playlist of house, house and er, more house continues (more on that later), but I've still had to time to notice how interesting Fatboy Slim's new single "Sunset (Bird Of Prey)" is. Not because of the Jim Morisson samples, which serve as a handy marker for the song and little else, but because of, duh, the music. All the reviews suggest that this is Cook's big break from big beat, being more of a trancey nu-skool breaks excursion. I guess they're right -it definitely reminds me of the work of Hybrid, recent BT, etc. - although we'll have to wait for the album to know if this is anything more than a red herring.

What ties all these disparate "nu-breaks" styles together is a curious sharpness to the breaks that is reminiscent of jungle, only at far too slow a tempo. This was something I first noticed at a rave about a year ago, and at the time the only comparison that came to mind was The Prodigy circa. "Voodoo People". Big beat always struck me as slightly sped-up hip hop, with which it shares a sort of blunt, heavy funkiness in its breaks (at least pre-Timbaland). Meanwhile "Sunset" and tracks like it have more of a smarter, midtempo hardcore rave sound, emphasising rush over funk; hence the Prodigy comparison.

Where nu-breaks falls down for a lot of people is in the anal-retentive technicality of its programming which has nothing to do with hardcore or big beat and everything to do with post-techstep jungle. Artists like Hybrid arrange their beats and breaks with a roccoco flair for complexity, but in the wrong musical setting this has the potential to come off dry and rigid, not to mention a tad smug. Luckily Cook, like Hybrid, has realised that this trap can be avoided by seizing on the most egalatarian dance style around - trance.

Not that "Sunset" is breakbeat trance really - it takes its cues more from the trancier aspects of The Chemical Brothers' last album and Cook's own "Right Here, Right Now" than from Paul Van Dyk or Jam & Spoon - but it's certainly a dramatic shift towards melody, away from the break-and-hook-line sparseness of more typical Fatboy fare such as "Rockafeller Skank" or "Gangsta Trippin". It's nice and absolutely necessary, because the break Fatboy has used, with its bizarre syncopated fourth beat (as opposed to the usual second and/or third) makes dancing to it incredibly difficult. I know this because when I was out on Thursday night I saw the whole dancefloor flounder in confusion. The gambit is defiantly anti-populist and in its Timbaland-style syncopation very similar to a lot of breakbeat garage - not something I expected at all.

It's an interesting direction for Cook, and I'm certainly looking forward to finding out whether it's just an amusing diversion, or if he really has decided to try and leapfrog The Chemical Brothers in the increasingly panicky flight from big beat.

Tuesday, October 17, 2000
"Now over here, we have some naughty, naughty kids..."

I think I've mentioned the Green Velvet compilation I have, The Nineties, at some point in the past. But I certainly didn't talk about it in much depth because otherwise I wouldn't be doing so now. It's a bit of a pattern for me that after listening to the rhythmic wonders of stuff like jungle, UK garage and current hip hop and R&B about 80% of the time, I'll suddenly feel the need to listen to nothing but raw house music for a couple of days.

Which means early Todd Terry tracks, acid house classics (check Armando's "Land Of Confusion" or Sleazy D's "I've Lost Control"), and the really old, inspired house classics like Marshal Jefferson's "Move Your Body" or J.M. Silk's "Music Is The Key". I'll occasionally choose some mid-nineties Chicago-revivalist stuff as well, but the only nineties-era artist I find myself returning to with frequency is Curtis Jones aka Cajual and best of all aka Green Velvet.

It was while listening to some authentic '88 era acid house that I suddenly stopped and asked myself: "How the fuck was this popular? This is some of the hardest music ever!" Original wave of acid house was both as intensely amusical and scary as the successive waves of acid proliferation (Hardfloor style acid trance, psychedelic trance, filthy acid techno etc.), and yet people still refer to '88 and the Summer Of Love as the most obvious example of dance music as cultural-event-crossover. Maybe the associated concept of rave crossed over into the cultural consciousness, but acid house, with its harsh acid riffs and cyborg narratives, simply disappeared under the weight of the more instantly inviting Italo-house and the instant rush of hardcore.

The specific sound of the Roland 303 synthesiser has gone on to be a staple in much of dance music, but the robotic funkiness and minimalist scaremongering of acid house has rarely been retapped, fans of the four-four beat prefering the soulfulness of US garage, or the spaciness of trance, or the out-and-out blitzkreig of gabba. It occupates however a rare but wonderful interzone between those spaces that is ripe for exploitation by nineties curators. If anyone has dramatically resurrected the spirit of acid house, it's Jones in his Green Velvet guise.

The basic Green Velvet template, particularly for his earlier tracks, is instantly identifiable - a remorseless kickdrum, maybe a low 303 pulse and Curtis or a sampled speaker droning a sordid narrative on top. Pretty sparse then. It's the very sparseness of his formula though that allows each track to sound individually relevatory through the addition or subtraction of a single detail. 95's "Flash" (a guided tour for parents around a debauched club - "We call this gas nitrous oxiiiiiiiide") is totally amusical, little more than a punishing kick drum and a military cacophony of snares, over which Curtis plays the role of a detached, ironic tourguide. The important distinction is that Curtis's absolute minimalism doesn't simply recreate the Euro-funklessness of similarly spare house derivatives like nu-nrg. Sure the kickdrums Curtis employs on his Green Velvet tracks are punishing, but the hi-hats (deliberately missing on "Flash") are as lascivious as on any Masters At Work track.

Actually tracks like "Flash" are a bit hit and miss for me, in the most extreme sense - uncompromisingly harsh, it either sounds like meaningless banging or an absolute revelation, the most ultimate expression of house music yet. Make no mistake, this is hard house (but not Hard House, thankfully), both in its sound and lack of accessability. When you're feeling it though, it makes the raw disco of Daft Punk or the psychedelic sample-fests of Basement Jaxx seem like an elaborate distraction from the main point of the music - the never-ending beat.

More immediately appealing are more musical synth-pop numbers - "Coitus RMX" is an excellent Moroder-style instrumental coloured with Depeche Mode synth arrangements. "The Red Light" is even better - like New Order, Moroder and Kraftwerk collaborating on a track immediately after sniffing poppers in a sauna, it's simultaneously chilly and steamy, its narrative ("Welcome sex fiends, live out your wildest dreams... Always after you come, you feel guilty. You wanna shower for hours, you feel so filthy!") undoubtedly dirty, but its delivery eerily clean sounding. "Thoughts" is more minimal, but its lyrics are surprisingly conventional, and it has an appealing post-punk feel reminiscent of Simple Minds circa Reel To Real Cacophony. All these are very recent ('99), which suggests that this year's debut album Constant Chaos could be something of a full fledged synth-pop/house hybrid. In a word, cool.

On the other hand, it'd be a shame if Curtis deviated completely from making straight house music, because he's needed there too. First and perhaps most importantly, his snare/hi-hat arrangements are peerless (most brilliant here is the stop-start syncopation on "The Stalker). Furthermore, tracks like '95's "Help Me" and "Destination Unknown" from '97 recreate the explicit drugginess of acid house and take it further, adding a bit of the twisted psychedelics of Basement Jaxx's rawer work (eg. "Same Old Show", "Razocaine", "All You Crazies") into the mix for good measure, creating extended work-outs of shuddering intensity.

Plus, the more streamlined man-machine character of his synth-pop tracks, while compelling, lacks the sense of humour of his earlier, self-referential house tracks. Debut single "Preacherman" (from '93) is just a sampled speech over a backing track, featuring a black preacher deploring the lack of family values in current society, and particularly the increase of sexual promiscuity, using the metaphor of "our second favourite childhood game": "house". Ideally I'd like to see both narrative styles retained.

It's a shame that "Answering Machine" has an unmemorable (if impressive) groove. A brilliant take on the same idea is '97's "Answering Machine", in many ways the closest thing to a pop song here. Again, little more than a kickdrum and a shockingly springy, kinetic snare arrangement, it features a week's long parade of depressing machine messages ("the baby's not yours, so you don't need to worry about it") and a chorus of Curtis shouting "I don't need this shit!" Sure, much of its appeal is a result of the novelty value, but you'll remember the awesome snare arrangement long after the phone calls cease to be amusing.

Perhaps it's good that Curtis seems to be the only person delving in this hinterland of house; if more people were making tracks like these they wouldn't be nearly as effective, not to mention that my ears can only stand so much before they start to ache slightly. Still, if your conception of house is all Barbera Tucker anthemics or Moloko cool, perhaps you could do worse than expose yourself to this fantastic slice of the darkside.

Saturday, October 14, 2000
Guru's Jazzmatazz ft. Angie Stone - Keep Your Worries

Regular readers will no doubt have noticed a certain bias in my current music taste towards music which is digital, robotic and jerky rather than natural, organic and funkified. So it's with great surprise that I report that the song I simply can't get out of my head at the moment is the latest single by Jazzmatazz, the hip hop and jazz fusion project organised by Guru of Gang Starr. It's not that I outright dislike this sort of music - I actually really love Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, The Stetasonics and old trip hop. The problem is that with all the great computerised and rigidly rhythmical music on the radio at the moment, deliberately harking back to an age where hip hop kneeled at the alter of live musicianship and sampled funk breaks seems misguided. And it doesn't help that Angie Stone, who sings the chorus on "Keep Your Worries", has been vaguely trumpeted as the next Macy Gray.

Of course what I don't allow for in this conception of my tastes is the sheer quality of an individual song. "Keep Your Worries" is defiantly old skool, but not apologetically so. Guru isn't harking back to past greats so much as doing what he's always done. Here it's a sumptuous string section sample dovetailing into a slumming beats-and-double bass groove. I don't see what's particularly jazzy about it, but if you still clutch your copy of Low End Theory close to your chest then you'll love this, despite its surprisingly high potential for dancefloor accessablity (the clip, with its spontaneous home dance party cash cow, makes me suddenly want to go to r&b nights, despite the general sliminess of the crowds that frequent them in Melbourne).

What really makes the song for me though are Stone's contributions. Her vocals are low, with a sweet-but-menacing edge that makes lines like "Keep my name out your mouth/'till you got somethin' worth talkin 'bout" seem positively threatening. Plus, despite her obvious positioning as an Aretha-style soul singer she sounds (or at least looks) a lot like a house diva as well, as if she's been chosen primarily for her anonymous vocal ability - the exact opposite of Macy's instantly recognisable quirkyness. And you're getting, to boot, a fantastic chorus, up there with Mary Mary's "Shackles (Praise You)" for soulful irresistablity. The lesson, I guess, is that it's okay to be keepin' it real, as long as you remember to keep it good as well.

Monday, October 09, 2000
DJ Luck & MC Neat ft. JJ - Masterblaster 2000

This has been out for some time, but I suddenly felt the urge to write about it. Why? Because it gives me another chance to talk about UK Garage of course, and because "Masterblaster 2000" is, I realise, one of the best pop singles of its namesake year.

The best thing about "Masterblaster" is how engagingly off-the-wall it is. I was always surprised at the success of Luck and Neat's previous hit "A Little Bit Of Luck" because, though insistent, it was so simple and repetitive down to the incredibly straightforward 2-step beat, that I thought mainstream audiences would actually be turned off. The subsequent rash of mindless novelty/rave tunes scaling the charts explained its strange success (audiences like something they can identify from one bar), but the fact remains that most garage pop crossovers (Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers", Lonyo's "Summer Of Love", "Sweet Like Chocolate", "Sincere", "Rewind" "Fill me In" etc.) work because as pop they are appealingly smooth and seamless: lush but conservative dancepop with accidentally revolutionary beats.

In contrast with both approaches, on "Masterblaster" the beats are practically the last thing I notice. Oh, they're certainly there, and as fun as ever, with the basic stop-start 2-step matrix jazzed up by some nicely jittery hi-hats. It's just that the rest of the tune is so jam packed with sonic novelty that it takes a while to hear them ticking away. Organs, tubas, harpsichords, pianos and weird synth blares all make their appearance, tying together into a tune that in turns reminds me of She'kspere, Quincey Jones era Michael Jackson and primo eighties synth-pop (specifically The Cure's "Let's Go To Bed" from those synths). If it doesn't absolutely scream "weirdness", that's only because the tune is so perfect (beats the hell out of "A Little Bit Of Luck" anyway) that all other considerations are sidelined somewhat. Still, along with B15 Project's "Girls Like This" it's helped to make mainstream radio stations sound a little bit more bizarre these past few months.

I think I often talk about garage's potential to breathe new life into dance music, but "Masterblaster" demonstrates that perhaps the more important question is what garage could do for pop. The short answer is that garage is a music built around oddities - unnaturally syncopated beats, accentuated low and high frequencies, often manipulated and cut up vocals - and so if you, as Joe Popsongmaker, are going to expand your conception of pop to include these oddities, continuing to rely on bland production and saccharine commonality (the two typical weapons of yer average evil pop songmaker) seems somehow counterintuitive. Significantly, attempts on the behalf of pop to appropriate garage such as Posh Spice's stab on "Out Of Your Mind" generally have even more dynamic production than the actual underground stuff, perhaps because of more expensive studios, but also maybe because it's considered crucial that these tracks appeal to the audience whose music they're co-opting.

Of course it's not as if there wasn't already an increasing trend towards an experimental take on pop before UK Garage arrived on the scene. Where I would distinguish garage-pop is that it's a hybrid between pop and what is, unlike R&B, explicitly a dance-based genre. What this suggests is that it's not only the tastes of mainstream audiences that are changing, but also their attitudes and opinions about what constitutes pop - a fine distinction, but one I can just about will into existence. Songs like "Masterblaster", "Flowers" and "Girls Like This" don't have personalities, storylines or emotional contexts, except for that of the sheer joy and exuberance expressed through the music; pop as narrative becomes pop as experience. It's a stance that's opposed to both the limpid strains of Westlife and the blatant personality of Britney Spears, towards something more deliberately, concertedly physical. The closest comparison to the phenomenon would be when house first started hitting the charts at the turn of the last decade, only house never had such good songs.

That last bit's more of a wild predicton than an actual description of current events, but hopefully tracks like "Masterblaster" will at least open the door for garage to expand pop's conception of itself.

Saturday, October 07, 2000
For the doubters, a reason not to hate Radiohead...

Thom Yorke on Kid A: "I'd be wary of thinking, oh, it's challenging. Because if it's challenging, then we're fucked.... Challenging is like that free jazz, that fucking terrible free jazz that came after Coltrane. It's all complete whack."

Thursday, October 05, 2000
After reading both Tom and Josh's critiques of Brent Sirota's Radiohead review, I've realised my problem with it is not that it's pretentious so much as it's a pretentiousness reserved solely for Radiohead. Kid A doesn't garner Joyce comparisons because it deserves them, or because it necessarily aspires to them, but rather because the album is as much a piece of cultural property as it is a record.

The universally orgiastic press which accompanied OK Computer has made the emerging critical reaction to Kid A almost as much of an event as the record itself. The two Brents at Pitchfork are not reviewing the album so much as participating in this final conclusion of the OK Computer celebration, the final blast of which has propelled some critics like the aforementioned into the stratospheres of meaningless free association, while sending others spinning into the shallows of confused and disgruntled disappointment. Either way, they're still talking about OK Computer. Either way, saying "Kid A? Well, it's a bit like Aphex Twin and Bark Psychosis, really" is seen to cheapen the event, reduce it to being merely a record.

It's significant that the bands Brent S. does mention are the usual suspects: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan. But, of course. The bands that people are compared to, who themselves are comparable to no one in rock, except perhaps eachother in the vaguest of senses (hence Brent Sirota searches desperately for lyrical references to The Wall and unhelpfully raises the spectre of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band, though not managing to get any deeper than that album's cover). But these figures have always benefited from extra-musical discourse, which suggests that either a) Brent Sirota doesn't actually like music itself, but has read some cross-form criticism, or b) he reckons that only these sorts of bands are worthy of the hi falutin theorising he employs - bands who have proven the worth through consistent canonical popularity.

When the Brents employ fantastic hyperbole or tedious literary allusions they're actually performing a none-too-subtle sleight of hand, trying to reaffirm Radiohead's postion as yet another archetype within rock, as a band that are undeniably genius, above all peers. And so the next generation's innovation sells out to the previous generation's respectability. And the cycle begins again.

I wonder if, in the midst of their Radiohead frenzy, Pitchfork are ever going to get around to talking about Kid A.

Tuesday, October 03, 2000
Tom finishes his approving round-up of the Olympics with a searingly accurate stab at the Australian republic issue. Why are we so silly? Um... it's hard to say. The monarchists are generally made up of two groups: die-hard English loyalists who don't actually consider themselves Australian (and due to our visa system often aren't) and post-retirement conservatives who distrust a republic for the exact same reason that they distrust mobile phones and the internet.

However I respect these misguided fools much more than the non-monarchists who voted against the republic (proving that old maxim about fools and the fools who listen to them), because every member of the second group that I have subsequently argued with seemed to have based their decision on precious little conviction. In fact after five minutes of perhaps overly harsh haranguing by me, they tend to hold up their arms and say sheepishly, "I guess I just didn't feel that I knew enough about the system to vote for it." Which infuriates me so much I turn apoplectic. The Closing Ceremonies for this year's Olympics were designed to express something about the Australian spirit. In today's papers many journalists complained that they didn't even come close to capturing what it was to be Australian. I agree. A truly Australian Closing Ceromonies would have been cancelled because no-one could really be bothered giving a damn.

(Please don't note here that this sort of thing is hardly a uniquely Australian problem. It suits me to believe otherwise.)

Kandi - Don't Think I'm Not

I've decided that there's a very individual sort of disappointment surrounding a poor single release from a usually on-form pop star or group that you just don't have with albums. Sure, pop songs are shorter, more frequent and easier to try before you buy, but, particularly if it comes on the heels of some stellar performances, the pain can still be quite sharp.

The thing is that an act who release a number of excellent singles in a row, merely by the rarity of what they are doing (it's generally acknowledged that even quality pop stars can handle at most two or three good singles, and there'll always be the requisite crappy ballad), generate an exciting momentum that simply builds with every release. It's like watching an Olympic ice-skating performance: any one stunt performed on its own is mildly impressive, but the real excitement comes from the need to perform several stunts in succession and not fall over once. The longer we wait for the skater to slip up, the more we hold our breath in fear and anticipation. I dedicated my utter devotion to Destiny's Child earlier this year when they followed up two knock-out punches ("Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Bug A Boo") with the equally impressive "Say My Name" - a feat I would never have expected from any R&B group. I later bought the album and realised that this was not a result of utter perfection so much as a canny choice of singles, but by then it hardly mattered.

Kandi, R&B hitmaker and wife of super-producer She'kspere, may not seem to fit into this equation. She's never released anything by herself before, and while her former group Xscape were very good, she was hardly the primary mover within the group at the time. But the R&B songs she created with her hubby for other artists ("No Scrubs", "Bills, Bills, Bills", "Bugaboo", "There You Go") constitute a more coherent (and impressive) backcatalogue than those of any of the names who grace their sleeves. Sure, "There You Go" towed the line rather than raising the bar for R&B like the others had, but then Pink's album had the brutal "Hell Wit' Ya" to recommend it, and besides, I thought at the time, surely Kandi (and by extension She'kspere) would be saving the real mindblowing stuff for her own album.

Listening to first single "Don't Think I'm Not", the pain is sharp indeed. Who would have thought that She'kspere, who with his convulsive snares stood out so firmly from the rest of the pretenders to Timbaland's throne, would be serve up something which reeked so strongly of Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins' now very stale beatz-u-like formula? Actually, the jittery electro skips that power this remind me mostly of Jam & Lewis' production for Jordan Knight's "Give It To You", only this doesn't have half the fun or inventiveness that infused that excellent track.

In all other ways this reminds me of such Darkchild bland-outs as Toni Braxton's "He Wasn't Man Enough For Me" and the Whitney and George Michael duet "If I Told You That". It's not that these tracks are offensive at all (though for a true Darkchild crime one need look no further than "If You Had My Love" or the Spice Girls comeback single "Holler"), but what sounded so fresh on Whitney's "It's Not Right But It's Okay" and then again on "Say My Name" has now been churned through the mill so often as to be absolutely lifeless. And it was bad enough when it was just Jerkins doing the churning. She'kspere hardly needs to join in.

Kandi's performance is also a let-down. The lyrics, while an extension of her general acidic put-down calling card (here the basic idea is, "don't feel guilty if you're sleeping around, 'cos I am too, and I pull more often to boot"), the little flashes of brilliance (rhyming bills with "automobills", or the classic "so what, you bought a pair of shoes/what, now I guess you think I owe you?") is sadly lacking, and her vocals have none of the invective drama that Beyonce of Destiny's Child or Pink brought to the proceedings.

Meanwhile the telltale stamps of Darkchild-ness on "Don't Think I'm Not" are the verging-on-trite melody and the beats which, though they are indeed "unstable", aren't in any way challenging. On songs like "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Hell Wit' Ya", She'kspere's beats are almost disorienting in their juddering syncopation, a welcome reminder that Timbaland's rhythmic innovations could be extended as well as merely smoothed out for commercial appeal. Let's not forget though that these songs were all still big hits, and true innovation coupled with commercial savvy impresses me far more than innovation alone, which is why I'd originally earmarked Kandi and She'kspere for future greatness in the first place.

From listening at HMV, the one track which really does stand out on Kandi's seemingly quite disappointing Hey Kandi album (which is surprisingly burdened with a glut of sugarcoated ballads, which I'd always assumed the couple had a distaste for) is the title track. It's excellent, like "Bugaboo" at half-speed, crossed with the squawking slo-mo funk of Dr. Dre's production work for Eminem, and is the only thing on the album that dares to stretch our conception of R&B just that little bit further. Kandi's vocals are also gorgeously luscious as she affects a lazy Southern drawl marred only by the interference of de rigeur Cher vocal treatment. Why wasn't this released as a single? Who knows, but even if it comes out next, the magic spell has already burst.


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